Feb. 11, 2015 | By Alec

It’s no secret that 3D printing has a lot of potential in the medical field. In recent months we’ve reported on numerous studies looking to develop bio-printed skin tissue, organs; the possibilities are seemingly endless. But while most of these studies will take years to produce working medical alternatives, there are other 3D printed medical applications that are already saving lives right now. Most significantly: anatomical models that can be used to help surgeons prepare for risky operations.

Of all of these, accurate replicas of human hearts are perhaps most impressive of all. Not only are hearts relatively small and high complex organs (a baby’s heart is smaller than an egg), these prints also need to be 100% accurate; one tiny printing error can cause death after all. That makes it extraordinarily impressive that 3D printing technology can be used to save lives with them, and it does so increasingly often. Just over 2015, we’ve reported on the successful surgeries of the four-year-old Andaenelie Gonzalez, the two-year-old Mina Khan and even on the three-month old Jasmijn.

In all of these cases, the heart replicas are used by surgeons to completely plan the medical procedure and take all eventualities into account long before the patient is even on the operating table. It's a brilliant and remarkably simple way to increase the likelihood of surgical success, and it’s no wonder that surgeons everywhere are becoming more and more curious about using this technology themselves.

And while we already knew that these hearts were effectively 3D printed replicas of CT scans (to ensure accuracy), the Belgian 3D printing service provider Materialise, who mastermind a large number of medical 3D printing, have revealed how they do it. As they explain, they have developed a special piece of Software called SurgiCase, ‘an online platform that enables clinical engineers to share their case information with Materialise.’ It contains all the tools necessary for the Materialise engineers to convert medical imaging data into 3D printable models.

These models are then prepped for 3D printing by Materialise’s production team, and that whole process takes some time. To ensure compete accuracy, a lot of support structures are needed. If you thought your 3D printer was taking ages to produce all those layers, then you’ll be shocked by the time it takes to 3D print a heart in resin. The heart in the video below, when sliced to optimize accuracy, consists of a massive 1,838 layers (for a total of just 18.3 cm). It’s therefore hardly surprising that it takes 49 hours to complete.

Once printed, a lengthly post-printing process follows, including the removing of support structures, washing, curing, polishing and so on. All of these steps, including combining various parts such as arteries, needs to be done with the utmost care. And as someone’s life depends on it, the 3D printed replica is then submitted to an extensive quality check before being sent to the doctors.

While obviously a very expensive and time-consuming process, doctors have already reported it makes all the difference. Paediatric cardiologist Dr. Arno Rust, who was part of the surgical team that helped Jasmijn, said at the time that it makes all the difference. ‘In the past, we could only rely on an echo or on individual pictures of a CT scan to assess the situation, but a 3D replica is so much easier to work with. Sometimes we were even only able to assess our options on the operating table and therefore lose valuable time,’ he said.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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